And Yet… Mercy

This one come from the great Protestant theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth. From his Dogmatics in Outline (Harper & Row, 1959):

What a problematic people this people Israel is in all stages of its history, is described by almost every book of the Old Testament. It goes from catastrophe to catastrophe, and always because it is disloyal to its God. This disloyalty is bound to mean damnation and destruction as the prophets constantly indicate, or show as already having happened… It is a grief for all Israelites, to think on what Israel once was, and what has now become of it under the strokes of God, who loved it so much and whose love was so ill requited. And when eventually the hope reaches fulfillment and the Messiah appears, Israel confirms its whole previous history in the Crucifixion. Israel confirms it by rejecting Him, not accidentally, but as handing Him over to Pilate to be killed and hanged on the gallows. Such is Israel, this elect nation, which so deals with its own mission and election that it pronounces its own condemnation…

Is Israel’s mission thereby superseded? No, on the contrary, through everything the Old Testament again and again insists that God’s election holds and will hold to all eternity… And this Israel which is a great demonstration of man’s unworthiness, at the same time becomes a demonstration of God’s free grace, which asks no questions about man’s attitude, but sovereignty pronounces upon man a “nevertheless”, by which he is upheld. Man is nothing but the object of the divine compassion… And in the fulfillment of his mission, in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, here most of all it becomes visible once more what Israel means. What else is Jesus hanging on the gallows, but this Israel once more in its sin and godlessness? Yes, this blasphemer is Israel. And this Israel’s name is now Jesus of Nazareth. And if we glance again at Jewish history and see the strangeness and absurdity of the Jew, his obnoxiousness which repeatedly made him odious among the nations… what else does that mean but the confirmation of this rejected Israel, which by God was made visible on the Cross, but also of the Israel with whom God keeps faith right through all stages of his wandering?

How do we know this? Because He kept faith with Israel on the Cross of Golgotha. When was God nearer to Israel than then? And where has God, by means of the nation Israel, stood more strongly and comfortingly beside all humanity than there? Do you believe that it lies with us to exclude the Jew from this faithfulness of God? Do you really believe that we can and may deny him this? God’s faithfulness in the reality of Israel is in fact the guarantee of His faithfulness to us too, and to all men.

Karl Barth was a friend and contemporary of the great Catholic theologian of the same time period, Hans Urs von Balthasar. Barth was instrumental in bringing Protestant theology out of the “liberal theology” (that’s a technical term) that was so characteristic of the 19th century. The result was a return to more “orthodox” roots, grounded in the early Church fathers and the creeds of Nicaea and Chalcedon. Pope Pius XII famously called Barth the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas. His multi-volume Church Dogmatics is considered one of the all time great works of systematic theology.


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